At Cliopatria, Ralph Luker points to a fine post by one of our fellow Cliopatria colleagues, Manan Ahmed. He and I seem to be on the same page regarding Obama’s recent speech at the Wilson Center and what it means for his foreign policy. We are also mostly in agreement about Pakistan policy, or at least we are in agreement that invading Pakistan in the event that the government there “fails” to act is crazy and dangerous. Obama likes to get a lot of mileage out of his pose as a sober-minded realist, someone who doesn’t oppose all wars, but only “rash” and “dumb” ones. What label does he think applies to his proposed “action” in western Pakistan?
One part of the post stood out for me as being perhaps the most important:
This national discourse comes from a deep Orientalism that has been a staple of our political lives prior to and since that “bright and beautiful Tuesday morning”. It is what enables us to question the sanity and the patriotism of anyone who dares raise the long history of American involvement across the globe as a contributing factor. It enables us to collapse real geographies from Leeds and Glasgow to Karachi and Islamabad into “wind-swept deserts and cave-dotted mountains”.
I would add one thing to this: it is not only an illusion of an undifferentiated other that confuses American thinking, but an overwhelming sense that “we” can never have contributed to anything that has ever happened to “us.” Not only can you not “blame America first,” you are not really supposed to blame America at all, because the nationalist story tells us that “we” as a nation are never really to blame. This is the story we have told ourselves long before “we” ventured into the Near East or gave much of a thought to the Islamic world. “We” are always provoked, pushed too far, attacked, insulted, forced into a fight that “we” did not want, etc. Even though the U.S. declared war on Britain first in 1812 and invaded Canada, it is remembered and still taught as a response to provocations (never mind that the most keen War Hawks had little stake in the “free trade and sailors’ rights” of war slogan fame and wanted to grab land). The invasion of Mexico was cast in the same light, and was more plainly a land grab. The Spanish War, the Philippine War, and even American participation in WWI fit the pattern of the government launching or entering wars that were quite unnecessary (and, in the case of WWI, opposed by a huge majority of Americans). Despite what might appear to the outside observer to be a record of a number of poorly justified invasions of other states, the memory is one of being bullied, put upon, victimised and threatened. Someone is always forcing our hand, and there is always the constant lament: “Why are you people doing this to us?” We then provide our own answer when the answers that other people give us are unsatisfactory, because the latter are unflattering and unwelcome. Our answer is that They are essentially and in all ways opposed to our very existence, because nothing else could explain hostility to those as beneficent as “we” are. Delusions about who “we” were and are combine with fantasies about “them” and produce the reliable consensus across most of the political spectrum that gives the same shallow, ill-considered answers to problems of diverse kinds. Thus, “if Hussein does not act, we will” can be easily replaced with “if Musharraf does not act, we will.” The political class in this country always speaks to other governments in what you might call the conditional of hegemony: your country’s sovereignty, or perhaps even its existence, is dependent on the degree of your subservience, and failure to comply will merit you the label of “anti-American” or “rogue” or both.
Then again, an even more important part may be this:
Why are we, four years after our indefensible invasion of Iraq and nearly six years after the attack on us, still unable to comprehend our enemies as capable, rational, modern agents?
It is reassuring to some, I suppose, when we do not allow our enemies to be fully rational or modern. This is also an element of what Kuehnelt-Leddihn called nostrism. It confirms in the minds of everyone in this country that, regardless of how misguided or clumsy or destructive our government’s policies may be, we will always retain this sense of superior rationality and modernity. It is even better if we can claim that the enemy is from another time all together, people who are “from the seventh century,” when a part of the problem is, surely, that they are very much from our own time. It is this need to cast the enemy as the embodiment of irrationality that leads to the ridiciulous overuse of the word fascist, since the labeling of others as fascist is the fast-track to denying them rationality and sanity. Those who read history as one long march towards inevitable victory for their politics will necessarily see adversaries as throwbacks who will, must, end up on the “ash-heap of history” with the empire serving the function of progressive chimney-sweep. Such people take no interest in the details of this other world they oppose, because they are bound to see these details as little more than curiosities and quirks of a system or civilisation that they assume is already doomed to fall.